Pleasures of the Table

Oldways has consistently encouraged the “pleasures of the table” as a key component of healthy eating. Based on our extensive knowledge of the “old ways” of eating, and on abundant scientific evidence, we have long argued that eating slowly, in a relaxed setting, in the company of friends and/or family, promotes better health. In recent years, science has vindicated our belief in the pleasures of the table — a number of intriguing peer-reviewed studies show why eating real meals, mindfully, is healthier than scarfing up fast food while stuck in a traffic jam.

Eat slowly, for better satisfaction
Eating slowly can make you feel more full and more satisfied, on the same amount of food. In one of our favorite recent studies, researchers gave a heaping cup (300 ml) of ice cream to healthy adult male volunteers, on two different occasions. One time, they were given 5 minutes to eat the ice cream; the other time, 30 minutes were allotted. Same volunteers, same amount of ice cream – but when people took a half hour to eat the food, their rating of “fullness” went up, and two important gut hormones related to appetite satisfaction increased markedly (Peptide YY up on average 27% and glucagon-like peptide up on average 41%).

Asian Family EatingFamily meals have tangible benefits
The “Leave it to Beaver” world, where Mom spent the day in the kitchen and put a meal on the table at 5:30 pm, no longer exists – if indeed it ever did. Work schedules, long commutes, sports practices, and school events make it challenging for everyone in a household to sit down together for dinner. Yet research increasingly shows that making the effort pays off in a wide range of unexpected ways. Eating family meals is associated with:

  • a healthier diet, including more fruits and vegetables, less fried food and soda, less saturated and trans fat, lower glycemic load, more calcium-rich foods, and more fiber and micronutrients;1
  • less tobacco, alcohol, marijuana use, depression, violence, stealing and running away in adolescents, along with higher grades;2
  • reduced odds of being overweight. 3

If your children are gathered around the family table for an hour a day, that’s an hour less they might be out drinking and smoking with their friends. And it’s logical that family meals are more likely to include healthy foods and therefore reduce the risk of overweight, obesity and poor nutrition.

Friends matter too
friends-coffee-talk.jpgAt a time when more of us are living alone, or in other non-family settings, it’s reassuring to learn that friends can have as positive an effect on health as families. A 2005 Australian study, for example, followed nearly 1,500 people aged 70 and older for ten years, and concluded that a supporting network of good friends may increase longevity 22% more than family relationships. “The central message,” said lead researcher Lynn Giles of Flinders University in Adelaide, “is that maintaining a sense of social embeddedness through friends and family appears pretty important for survival, and it seems that non-kin relationships are particularly important.”

Although this study did not delve specifically into the value of eating meals with friends, it’s an easy leap to say that breaking bread together is one good way to “maintain a sense of social embeddedness through friends.” Of course, anyone with a dose of common sense can imagine that relaxing with friends over a meal might be more satisfying than eating alone off a TV tray in front of the evening news.

Stress interferes with digestion
The pictures painted above – of adolescents carousing with their friends or seniors eating a lonely meal – cover two alternatives to a social meal and the pleasures of the table. For most of us in our working years, however, a third reality is more likely: dining under stress. The day too often starts with a drive-through coffee and donut, includes lunch on the run or at our desk, and ends after a long commute with a less-than-idyllic dinner. We all know our digestive systems respond to stress. How else to explain the butterflies in your stomach before that big presentation, or the way you feel tied up in knots when you ask the boss for a raise?

“Fight or flight” stage – when our body gears up for action in response to stress – is diametrically opposed to “rest and digest” stage. We’re not geared to respond to stress and digest at the same time, so when stress is prolonged, digestion suffers. Compounding the issue is our tendency to chew less when we’re rushed. Digestive enzymes can’t easily work their magic on large chunks of food; the more you chew, the easier it is for your body to absorb the nutrients in your food. The bottom line: Eating rapidly, under stress, means that your body gets much less benefit from your meal than if you ate the same foods slowly in a relaxed setting.

Oldways’ credo of the Pleasures of the Table
Bringing it all together, here’s what we believe at Oldways:

  1. Eat with friends or family whenever possible. When you eat alone, be present with yourself; relax and enjoy the taste of your food.
  2. Carve out time for meals. Three-hour meals on a Tuscan hilltop are not possible or practical, but almost everyone can reorder their lives to put more of a priority on shared meals without TV, texting or telephone calls.
  3. Enjoy your food. Don’t count every calorie, or obsess over the latest dietary fads. Make every meal a sensual treat of color and flavor. Good food can indeed be good for you – as we demonstrate all over this website!

Some supporting studies for issues on this page include:
1. Several studies document a correlation between healthier diet and family meals:

Journal of Adolescent Health. 2009 Oct; 45(4):389-95. Epub 2009 May 28. (Fulkerson et al.)
Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2009 Mar-Apr; 41(2):79-86. (Burgess-Champoux et al.)
Journal of the American Dietetic Assn. 2009 Jan; 109(1):72-9. (Larson et al.)
Journal of the American Dietetic Assn. 2007 Sep; 107(9):1502-10. (Larson et al.)
Archives of Family Medicine. 2000 Mar; 9(3):235-40. (Gillman et al.)

2. Studies documenting social behaviors associated with family meals include:
Journal of Adolescent Health. 2009 Oct; 45(4):389-95. Epub 2009 May 28. (Fulkerson et al.)
Preventive Medicine. 2009 Jun; 48(6):585-7. Epub 2009 Apr 14. (Eisenberg et al.)
Journal of Adolescence. 2009 May 22 [Epub ahead of print]

Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. 2004 Aug; 158(8)792-6. (Eisenberg et al.)
3. Overweight is inversely associated with family meals in various studies including:

Journal of Adolescent Health. 2009 Oct; 45(4):389-95. Epub 2009 May 28. (Fulkerson et al.)
Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences. 2009 Apr 28. [Epub ahead of print]
Obesity. 2006 Dec; 14(12):2266-76.
(Bisakha)

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